As you know, I do love my downtown layovers (oh God, this again?). Largely because I love to go out and get coffee and look at cute boys on them (oh God, this again??). Today’s sojourn to the South Side of Pittsburgh handily satisfied these cravings. (As well as all my cinnamon needs.)
I’ve been to Pittsburgh before, but it’s been ages since I’ve been off the airport property, where we used to layover. I have great memories of coming here fifteen (+) years ago with one great friend to visit another. We bowled in a dinky upstairs bowling alley and rode the incline and I acquired my yellow souvenir mug from Beehive Coffee. I sipped from it just the other day, in fact, little suspecting that I would ever visit Beehive again. Much less in two days, thanks to the (often well-hidden) beauty of Life on Reserve. Heck, I was just glad the place was still in business, as it would give me a reason to get out of bed and get out of my hotel room, in whose comfort it is sometimes tempting to stay ensconced after a 3-leg 13-hour day.
You can always tell you’re in a place where everybody drives everywhere when the front desk clerk admits that she’s lived there her whole life and can’t tell you the best way to walk to a bridge that’s eight blocks from her job. But walking around it is the only way to get a feel for a place — you’ve been in the backseat of one taxi cab, you’ve seen ’em all. It’s by moving through a city’s streets on your feet that you can peruse the architecture, the accent, and the lunch specials. That you stumble upon bookstores run by eccentric old men of the kind you fear (and hope) you’ll become, or upon rugby teams from local universities raffling off dates with toothsome players to passersby (which I, alas, did not win.). After suggesting multiple alternatives to walking (a cab, the T, she might have muttered something about hitchhiking), my pal at the front desk was able to unearth and (skeptically) provide me with a map, and off I went, across the Monongahela (which I mention mostly to carpe the diem of having the opportunity to drop a cool riparian place name like “Monongahela”) into a gorgeous fall day.
I have always had an exceptionally adhesive memory. I remember details and directions and people’s names and who ate what and word-for-word the conversation I had with Bonnie Raitt on an airplane ten years ago, and I have a very specific memory of visiting Beehive Coffee with my friends in 1997 or whenever it was. The details of which were borne out not at all. It was (OK, is) a great little indy place with great coffee and lovely and pleasant counter help, but it wasn’t anywhere near where I remembered it being, and it was nothing like how I remembered it. Which was kind of a challenge for me, because I remember everything. Certainly when I travel. That’s kind of my thing: sometimes I journal, and sometimes I buy postcards, but mostly I just walk around and see what people are up to and remember everything. Or, apparently, just fill in the blanks of what I don’t remember with something that probably happened, or certainly would have been cool if it did.
Granted, it’s been fifteen years. Stuff changes, certainly places change — it’s not like I remembered it being a coffee house and it was really a Back To The Sixties! hair salon; it is in Pittsburgh, it’s not like I was remembering Raleigh or Durham. But I think there’s a lesson in here somewhere, too. About living in the Now and smelling roses. About taking a breath and a look around and savoring the moment for how it tastes, how it smells, and what it is. Certainly about the malleability of our experiences, which seem like they should more or less be fixed. Something happened or it didn’t, right? You’ve been somewhere or you haven’t, what’s with the grey area? Travel opens your eyes; it opens your mind. You see things, you meet people, you feel a rhythm that you wouldn’t see, meet, or feel if you never stepped out of your own life. But we each filter these experiences through our own lens, don’t we? We carry our memories like the light jacket you thought you would need but now it’s too hot: in the least obtrusive, most comfortable way we can devise. You want to keep that jacket close lest you walk off without it and need it later in the afternoon, but places get crowded: today I kind of felt like I went to put the jacket on and found I’d picked up the wrong one. And for a second I was kinda bummed. I loved that old jacket, and it served me well for a lot of years. But this new jacket’s kinda fancy, too. It’s a totally new color, and if I lose a few pounds (or really suck it in — that old jacket was from kind of a while ago), it’s gonna fit great. Zipping into it, it occurred to me that perhaps I use writing to codify and fix experiences. Little travel-journal snippets like this one, sure, but especially fiction. I can tell any story the way I want to; if I do it right, I can convey exactly what’s in my heart (or on my mind or stuck in my craw…). But you will read it through your own lens. In your own moment. And take away from it what you will, be it my intended message, one of its cousins, or an interpretation I could never have foreseen.
As for the Beehive and the South Side, I had a great time today as revisiting an old place became a completely new experience. The three of us friends that went there a while back still value the time we get to spend together, and I will always remember the jacket I wore that day. Or one very like it. Unless I was wearing a sweatshirt…